Lean Markets Pulling For Rapid Process Improvements (RPI)

The economic news this morning is not so good. The Institute of Supply Management (ISM) manufacturing report sent the market into another free-fall today (down 425 points at the moment, following last week’s massive rally). The ISM index stands at 36.2% which may not mean much to the lay-person. The important indicator here is that anything below 50% is bad news and 36.2% is as low as it’s been in more than a quarter century. This is a report that measures factory output based on orders for manufactured goods. Only two sectors performed well: apparel and paper. European and Chinese factories are reporting similar output and demand for their goods. We all know how this is playing itself out for Ford, GM and Chrysler. They have a shot at financial support that will bode well for thousands of suppliers and – frankly – millions of employed people. For the remainder of the manufacturing community, there may not be a bail-out. What are small businesses and manufacturers to do?

Time is of the Essence

MarketWatch reports that economists now admit the recession began at least a year ago. Could have fooled me. Experts tell us we can rest assured that it will endure at least another year – maybe two. That said, small business and small manufacturers are faced with the need to get lean very quickly. There is no time for hemming and hawing and this is not the time to simply lay people off. Your path forward is as complex as the path that got you here. No silver bullet. Your costs are a reflection of (among other things) executive pay, labor, benefits, space, utilities, supplies, suppliers, marketing, hardware and – to a great extent – your business processes.

Those of you who are familiar with Lean Methodology or who might be familiar with a consultant who specializes in Lean may now be thinking: “This is the time for it.” I commend you. I agree that Lean can and will deliver the elimination of costs associated with waste in your processes. However, bear in mind that Lean can involve between 6 and 12 weeks’ time for execution.

Lean Liposuction?

Lean is a bit like a diet. You have new habits to learn and you glean life-changing insights from an examination of how you did things in the past. Lean is a lifestyle and it creates a certain culture. I want to suggest that you consider the Lean equivalent of liposuction or getting your stomach stapled. It’s quick, it’s dirty, but it works. It’s commonly referred to as Rapid Process Improvement or RPI.

RPI Works and Works Fast

An RPI event requires: 2-3 days; a core business process suspected of carrying waste (extra fat) and whose repair would make a big cost difference; a team of subject matter experts and decision-makers; the willingness to be brutally honest and trim the waste. In that brief 2-3 days time, the process can be articulated and modeled and business rules can be captured. Basic performance measures can be identified and the team can brainstorm ways that waste can be eliminated from the value stream without any adverse impacts. New, future-state process models can be developed and basic simulations can be conducted to assure you and your customers that quality concerns haven’t been introduced or exacerbated. You want the results to be faster and better.  Once you’ve nailed the future state, a solid RPI process involves mapping your implementation and measuring results over the next 3 to 12 months. Hint: measuring cost savings from the get-go is a must. Remember your baseline!

RPI Now

Rapid Process Improvement should be near or at the top of your list of things to do in the next 4-8 weeks. The small business owner and small manufacturer have got to make the time and prioritize events like this until all of the low-hanging fruit has been harvested. This is not business process management or improvement for the sake of developing software. This is crisis management and RPI may save jobs. Every job saved has an immediate impact on your entire community. A job saved is a person saved and that person may very well be your star player when the economy turns upward in 6 months. Don’t lose them when you could easily trim the fat and waste in your processes.

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